Ogilvy entered the Mainland China market 30 years ago, promising to leverage its global network to help major local brands expand worldwide. Decades later, it has a stable of long-time clients, expansion stories and Cannes-winning work to boast of.
But the established agency is facing growing competition from smaller local agencies that are increasingly scooping major clients. How is the stalwart agency seeking to stay ahead of the curve, and how is it positioning itself to capture fast-growing domestic clients?
In an exclusive interview with Campaign China, Chris Reitermann, the CEO of Asia and Greater China for Ogilvy, details Ogilvy's historical strength and the "transformation journey" it has been on over the past few months. He discusses the agency's work helping Chinese brands become global marketing organisations, a reputation it continues to harness to win new work. We hear of how Ogilvy wooed Chinese clients with trips to David Ogilvy’s castle in France. And we fast-forward to today, where Ogilvy is focusing on talent and positioning itself as a digital expert. And finally, Reitermann reminisces over Ogilvy’s most memorable campaigns in China from the past 30 years.
Campaign China: What are Ogilvy's priorities right now in China?
Reitermann: I do think that in China we're at a pretty good point in our history because we are changing and optimising our setup. Ogilvy has been on a transformation journey since Andy Main joined us as global CEO about nine months ago. We’ve optimised our structure and established five business units under one brand: advertising, experience, PR, growth and innovation, and health.
There's also been a lot of investment in talent. We’ve brought in a slew of amazing talent on a global and regional level and also here in China. Melinda Po returned to Ogilvy to run our advertising business, Tom Wan joined us to run experience, Chris Chen joined us to run digital transformation consulting and we established a content hub in Guangzhou, just to highlight a few.
I believe the biggest challenge for everybody is how digital is impacting the way we do business, and I would say that Ogilvy is an agency that has the chops and capability to help clients on that journey from a strategy, technology and most importantly, operational and go-to-market perspective. Some of our biggest client relationships are pure digital relationships where we help them manage the full customer experience across all digital platforms, from awareness all the way to conversion and sales.
How are you doing at building business among domestic clients? Why do smaller emerging domestic clients need to consider Ogilvy as opposed to local agencies?
From very early on when we entered China, it was our ambition to be the most local multinational agency. We always wanted to work for Chinese brands, because we felt that many of these Chinese brands would become big global dominant players in the future.
In 2005, we sent a whole group of Chinese companies’ CEOs to David Ogilvy’s castle in France to attend a two-day workshop on how to build a global brand. Back then, there were no global Chinese brands, and many of those companies that at that time went there are now big global brands, and big global companies. So, that's always been a big focus of ours.
When you look at why these Chinese companies come to Ogilvy, it's because of our reputation in having built strong global brands. For the work we've done for IBM, the work we've done for American Express, the work we've done for Dove. That's what they want to learn. And when you look at the work that we’re doing for the likes of Huawei for example, it's not just creative work—we're really helping them to set up a global infrastructure to do marketing. We help them develop processes, show them how to develop work in Shenzhen and make sure it can work in France or Italy or Brazil. Because of the work that we've done historically for Lenovo, Haier, Huawei—we have more and more Chinese companies coming to us. And now, increasingly, we help a lot of rising Chinese companies and a lot of internet companies build global brands and take their business overseas.
Some of these newer, rising brands, we do work increasingly with them and what they need from us is actually quite different from what our traditional clients want. Because a lot of them do their content production inhouse, they don't necessarily come to us for creative execution, but they come to us for strategy. So, we work with brands like Perfect Diary on brand strategy, on marketing strategy, go-to-market strategy, and on big brand ideas.
Talking about domestic brands, what are they doing right and what’s missing from their strategy to become true international household names?
Increasingly, Chinese brands have good products. 20 years ago, when Chinese companies went to Europe, their products were seen as cheap or knockoffs, but now a lot of these Chinese companies are very innovative and their product quality is quite impressive, and they're a good value-for-money solution.
I do think that there's still a lot that Chinese companies need to learn about running a global marketing organisation and building a global brand. But, when you look at how this has happened in the US or in Europe or in Japan, you're not building a global brand in one year or two. This takes 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. It's a journey that we need to go through, and it's a very difficult one, because you need to set up global teams, you need to set up a marketing infrastructure, you need to learn about new cultures, new markets. If you take for example Huawei, we started working with them about eight or nine years ago, and it's been a huge learning curve over the last few years for both of us. When I compare how we work now versus nine years ago, there’s a huge difference. But I will say, there's still another 10 years ahead of us to learn more. I think we're probably now halfway through in really setting up a true global marketing organisation, and really getting the company to understand what a global brand is, how to operate one, and how to behave like a global brand.
It's not easy, because it's a big cultural shift for a company to be a Chinese company, or to be a global company. Most Chinese companies in the beginning want to be a Chinese company that sells globally. Then they start to realise that if you really want to be a global brand your mindset needs to be global. And that's a big change. A big cultural change as well.
How does a large international agency stand competition-wise against nimble, smaller agencies who may be more locally connected to culture?
First of all, it's a good thing that there are more local agencies coming up that are strong, because China should and must have strong local agencies. It shouldn't just be multinational agencies doing business in China. It shows that the industry is getting more mature, and that there's more local talent that now can run their own agencies and do well.
To be honest I'm not too worried about those agencies, obviously, we see that they're successful in some places, and some of them definitely are and will become competitors in the future, but I like competition and believe for Ogilvy it's important to focus on our strengths.
We don't need to do everything, but I think it's important that at Ogilvy we continue to build our reputation to be an agency that clients come to if they need to solve a big business problem through creativity. If clients need to build a brand, if clients need a long-term partner for growth, if they need the ability to manage the full consumer experience—they will come to us. Many of the emerging brands and tech platforms are coming to us to help them build their own brands. Equally many of the local brands who want a global perspective are coming to us, and many of our MNC clients who want less fragmentation and more of a China-specific brand and marketing operation model are coming to us too.
Regarding the point about being more connected to local culture, I believe we are as connected to local culture as they are. We probably have more depth, more strategic resources, more research or more data in our hands to be more connected.
What role does talent play in ensuring Ogilvy stays competitive? How are you doing at nurturing local talent? Female talent? Talent from diverse backgrounds?
One of the key reasons Ogilvy has been as successful in China is because we have always had a very strong focus on talent, especially on local talent. Amongst multinational agencies, Ogilvy probably has the most senior local talent. Most of our senior management is Chinese: our Shanghai office head is local, our Beijing office head is local, our Guangzhou office head is local. Our ECD is local Chinese, our chief strategy officer is local Chinese as well. That is a lot of very senior local talent that has been with us for many, many years.
We always felt that if we want to be a successful agency in China, we need to localise as much as possible. Having said that, it is important that we have some diversity in talent and points of view, and having some international and diverse talent is equally important to us—it’s the basis of a solid creative environment.
When you look at gender diversity I think we're in a pretty good spot, probably about 50-50 of our senior management in China is female and male. We have actually more female employees than male employees, even as we go up the ranks on a senior level it is fairly evenly distributed. Selina Teng is our Beijing office head and sits on WPP’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, she makes sure when we talk about diversity it's not just about gender but cultural, ethnical and geographic diversity too. One of my personal ambitions has always been to see more Asian and Chinese talent taking on global responsibilities. And we're doing a lot of activities on a China level to support the LGBTQ+ community and train our staff on diversity and inclusion.
The other part that I would like to mention is that we've been lucky because our senior management has been very stable. Most of us have been working here and together for 20 years or more, so we have a very strong senior management team, who trust each other and have each other’s back. We also have some amazing next-gen talent moving up the ranks and taking on more responsibility."
What do you think the future of creativity will look like as ecommerce becomes even more paramount? How do agencies’ way of working need to evolve to meet the challenge?
I do think that creativity becomes even more important in today’s digital world. The notion of creativity is changing though, because historically agencies were very much focused on communications: doing a TV commercial or doing a campaign and then trying to take this campaign and push it across many different channels. That is no longer the right approach, because when you look at China, there are so many different channels, and every platform is a kind of ecosystem in its own right. So what you do on Tmall or what you do on Douyin is very different. All our work now is made for a digital world as this is where our consumers live and interact. An agency in China is only relevant if digital is fully embedded in its DNA and if it is able to produce work that stands out in the platforms where consumers live.
Creativity now has to be much more specific to platforms and much more than just communications. We need to thoroughly understand platforms like Douyin, Bilibili, Kuaishou, etc—know the ins and outs of these platforms, while also building a narrative for the brand overall.
We all see that strong brands perform better in ecommerce because they can stand out. Creativity is important to make brands stand out, to tell a story, to get an emotional connection. I am quite hopeful and confident about the future of our business because everybody over the last several years has been talking about digital transformation. Many companies spent a lot of money on technology, on setting up infrastructure, data, data warehouses. But they actually neglected a very important part which is how to make sure that their brand shows up in the right way, at the right time, in the places where consumers engage with the brand. We now spend a lot of time with our clients to help them pull this together, to help them make the best use of technology to reach their consumers more effectively, but at the same time, make sure that the content is relevant and engaging, and helps change people's perception of brands.
Equally, consumers now increasingly want to see the purpose behind a company. They want to know if the company aligns with their ideals and beliefs before they buy. So, I do believe creativity and telling these stories in an interesting and modern way will definitely be more important, not less important.
Ogilvy’s most memorable China campaigns from the past 30 years
We asked Ogilvy and Reitermann to select and comment on some highlights from the last three decades.
1991 Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive | Santana
Reitermann remembers this campaign very clearly: "One that we're very proud of is when VW (Volkswagen) entered China," he said. "We produced the first ad that they ever did in China for Santana and launched the Santana back in 1991. That was a wonderful campaign, even by today's standards, based on some great local insight. It reflected the sentiment in China at that time."
The 1991 TVC shows a VW Santana cruising through different parts of China, from urban to rural areas and deserts to rivers. The campaign's slogan, "With Santana, there is no fear wherever you go", was used for nearly a decade. It became one of China’s best-selling models.
The early 1990s KFC | Print posters
For long-time client KFC, Reiterman doesn't recall a single campaign in particular, but rather that it has been a client of Ogilvy's "every day of our presence in China".
"KFC is probably one of—if not the most—successful multinational brand in China. They've done an amazing job to localise the business and have been super successful as a brand.”
2003 China Mobile | M-Zone
This campaign was memorable because it scooped Ogilvy's first Cannes Lions in China. Ogilvy created the M-Zone brand from scratch as a youth-focused telecom service. It developed a fully integrated campaign featuring Jay Chou. The M-Zone brand won more than 10 million subscribers in the year it was launched, rising to more than 100 million in three years, and helped China Mobile gain share in the youth market.
2006 Motorola | RAZR Cut Through
Ogilvy’s Motorola campaigns travelled from China to other parts of the world. "We did iconic campaigns with them and they were among the clients that really dared to push the envelope," Reitermann said. "Motorola was the number one handset brand in China back then, and we launched the iconic RAZR and many other models. We did all the global work for Motorola out of our Beijing office at that time."
2012 Coca-Cola | Coke Hands
'Coke Hands' is "another key milestone". Developed by the Shanghai office, it won Ogilvy's first Cannes Lions Grand Prix out of Asia. "It is a simple but amazing piece of work. It got us a lot of great reputation, for the work itself and how it was conceived," Reitermann says.
Coca-Cola's signature ribbon was reimagined in a simple yet powerful outdoor and print ad. The ribbon is transformed into the striking image of two hands joining together to share a Coca-Cola bottle, promoting the brand's ideals of togetherness, unity and connection.
More recently, a lot of the digital and commerce work that Ogilvy is producing for the likes of Huawei, Nescafe, Shiseido or Mercedes is "something we're also very proud of", Reitermann says.
Campaign Asia-Pacific's Jessica Goodfellow and Matthew Miller contributed to this article.